By Tolu Ogunlesi
No writer could possibly exist in isolation. Even if she succeeded in engineering a spatial isolation (think of the farthest reaches of outer space), psychic isolation from the rest of humanity would be impossible. At the very least a writer is also a citizen—with all the requisite responsibilities: paying tax, participating in local politics, and obeying the rules and regulations established by the state. She is a mélange of family ties, societal status, religious beliefs (or lack of them), biases, memories, romantic impulses, political affiliation and imaginative capacity. A writer is a human being first, and then a creative force, and therefore far more than the sum of his writing.
This applies everywhere, and in times of peace and conflict. Having established this, let us proceed to the all-important question: What is the role of the writer in a conflict zone?
Perhaps one should start by considering the options available to a writer in a conflict zone. (For the purposes of this article, I have chosen “war” as synonym for conflict). A writer’s choice of role(s) in conflict is admittedly limited. Aloofness is one possibility; this would mean an artistic disconnection from the conflict (“I will not / cannot write”). The other choice would be to “engage,” which would manifest as an artistic engagement (writing) or a militaristic one (taking up arms), or both.
The Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, was a watershed moment in the history of the Nigerian republic. Erupting only seven years after independence from Britain, it was merely the final breakdown at the end of a series of smaller (but progressively worsening) failures— widespread violence in the Western region, necessitating the declaration of a state of emergency; two violent, bloody coups that overthrew the central government; and the massacre of Eastern Nigerians living in the predominantly Muslim North. It is interesting to observe the responses of Nigerian writers to the war, and to try to draw patterns from the actions of five of them:
Wole Soyinka, who, two decades later would win the Nobel Prize in Literature; Chinua Achebe, who has come to be referred to (against his will by the way) as the Father of African Literature; Christopher Okigbo, arguably the most influential and most famous poet to come out of Nigeria; John Pepper (J. P.) Clark, poet, playwright and dramatist; and Ken Saro Wiwa, who would go on to become a world-famous environmental rights activist, and who, three decades later, would be hanged by Nigeria’s military dictatorship on the basis of unsubstantiated charges (of inciting murder).
A background to the war is necessary here. The killings of Igbos (the predominant ethnic group in Eastern Nigeria) living in Northern Nigeria compelled the military governor of the Eastern region to declare independence from Nigeria, and proclaim the breakaway nation the Republic of Biafra. The Government of Nigeria (headed by a Northerner) would have none of the declaration. Efforts at dialogue and negotiations of a peaceful settlement failed; in May 1967 war was declared. The war therefore pitched Nigeria (the Western and Northern regions) against Biafra (the Eastern region). It lasted for 30 months, ending in 1970 with the surrender of Biafra. For his attempts to negotiate with the Biafran authorities, the Nigerian government arrested and jailed Soyinka.
In a 2006 interview, Wole Soyinka (whose ethnic group, the Yorubas, are from Western Nigeria) said: “I didn’t believe in that war. I felt it was an unjust war on the part of the Federal Government, because the Biafrans had suffered a great deal… and while their action was politically unwise, I did not find it morally reprehensible, and they certainly did not deserve that they should be clobbered anew by the full Federal might when they were the immediate past victims.”1 Being Igbo, Chinua Achebe had the path of his allegiance clearly cut out. “I cannot possibly leave Biafra while [the war] goes on. I have to be here and do whatever little I can to help this terribly wronged country,” he wrote in a reply to an invitation from the Africa Studies Program at Northwestern University, Illinois.2 He spent the war years as a spokesperson for the government of Biafra, traveling to America and Europe to seek understanding allies for the Biafran war effort.
Achebe, pained by bosom friend J.P. Clark’s decision to join the Nigerian side (he saw it as nothing short of a betrayal), cut all ties with him. For years afterwards the two men were not on speaking terms.
Christopher Okigbo (also Igbo) sketched, in poetry full of an unnerving urgency and startling symbolism, the descent into anarchy (these poems were written before the war started):